Writing about art is more than just a job for Michael Brenson. It's a vocation. "If art criticism is going to have any meaning," he says, "it has to be something of a calling." Brenson was an art critic at the New York Times during the art boom of the 1980s, and has been writing about art and artist for more three decades. "If you don't care really profoundly about it, if you don't believe there's something profoundly at stake in what it means to be an artist, and what it means for you to write about art, then why do it at all?" he asks. Without such passion, he adds, criticism loses its importance. "It's just part of the entertainment complex. And no thank you."

Brenson says all this in a friendly, relaxed, even affable manner. Over coffee and a couple of custard-laden fruit tarts one recent Saturday afternoon in the street-level restaurant of the Hotel Mayflower, across from New York City's Central Park, he and PW are discussing the art world, Brenson's place as an art critic within it and his new book, Visionaries and Outcasts: The NEA, Congress, and the Place of the Visual Artist in America (New Press).

Despite the just-above-freezing temperatures, the six-foot-plus tall Brenson is wearing only a brown corduroy sport coat and a large scarf over a blue dress shirt. He lives just a few blocks away in a one-bedroom apartment he shares with his partner of 25 years, Sharon O'Connell, a regional manager for YBP Library Services. This might explain his relatively lightweight attire, but, merely convenient or not, the outfit makes him look every bit the part of the critic on a mission.

Last fall, after nearly a decade of curating and consulting, and after a brief stint as the art critic for New York magazine, Brenson became an associate professor at Bard College, where he teaches in the school's curatorial studies department. This spring, he will teach a course--"Critical Issues in Contemporary Art"--that examines the culture war's controversies of a decade ago, involving photographers Andres Serrano and the late Robert Mapplethorpe, and last year's controversy over the "Sensation" exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

When Brenson uses words like "responsibility" regarding art criticism, he d sn't sound like a publicist or an advocate. Despite his recent return to academia, he still has the aura of somebody who subscribes to an almost old-fashioned notion of art criticism: he is a believer in the critic as somebody who explains and communicates the loftiest ideas to a general (as opposed to a specialized) reading public.

Born into a cultured, artistic family 58 years ago, Brenson lived a childhood filled with art and ideas. Both his parents came to the United States from Europe just after the start of World War II. His father, Theodore Brenson, was an abstract expressionist painter who introduced his young son to Paris in 1954. As a child growing up in New York, he could count Piet Mondrian as a neighbor. His mother, Vera, was a psychoanalyst who raised him from the age of nine, after his parents separated. Despite this upbringing, however, Brenson never thought about becoming a visual artist. "I was always drawn to writing," he says.

He was awarded an M.A. in creative writing and, in 1974, a Ph.D. in art history, both from Johns Hopkins (his dissertation was on Alberto Giacometti). After receiving his doctorate, Brenson left immediately for Paris. "I was fed up in a lot of ways with America," he says. "I had always had my problems with this country, and I definitely needed some distance from it. Also, both my parents were European, and both of them were dead, and I felt some connection to Europe through Paris. Those things together got me abroad."

In Paris, he taught and began to write. He loved the city's street and café life, but he was not destined to stay forever. "I wasn't sure that I would come back," he says. "But I was aware that I could come back." He was given the opportunity to return in 1982, when some articles in the International Herald Tribune brought him to the attention of the New York Times. He was hired first as an art reporter, then as an art critic. He stayed for nine years. "I always wanted to write regularly," he says. "And if you want to write regularly there is just no place like the Times. To me it was the greatest privilege in the world."

He and O'Connell found that it took some time to get used to life in New York. For one thing, there was the change in their standard of living. "We had no money in Paris," Brenson recalls. During his seven years there, his income averaged $7,000-$8,000 a year; O'Connell had earnings, too, as a dancer and teacher. "You could live on that. We lived on it, and because we liked being there so much we always managed."

Visionaries and Outcasts looks at the culture wars through the prism of the history of the National Endowment of the Arts, and at the organization's abandonment, in 1995, under great political pressure, of its three-decades-old, no-strings-attached fellowship program for visual artists. It's a story of how the government discovered, in the 1960s, that it needed artists, as Brenson writes, "to help the country find its spiritual center," and of how the Endowment validated and raised the social status of visual artists, only to abandon that lofty goal. By 1995, "that astonishing government trust and belief in the artist was dead," writes Brenson.

"The NEA was brought into existence in part to respond to an overemphasis on science and technology, as well as money," Brenson writes. He chronicles the Endowment's history as emblematic of an unprecedented historical moment in this country, when the federal government considered the promotion of creative experimentation and innovation to be in the national interest. The book shows how the fellowship program, which gave grants to some 4,000 artists, was at the center of the Endowment's activities. Brenson's story includes humorous and intriguing portraits of some of the better-known officials of the NEA, including the dynamic Henry Geldzahler, the visual arts program's first director, and reveals in detail how the peer panel decision-making process developed.

The book follows the NEA visual arts program's history through the crisis of 1989, which ignited the firestorm of protest that eventually ended the fellowship program. Ironically, Brenson points out, the events that got the NEA in so much congressional trouble had nothing to do with the program. They involved two late-1980s exhibitions featuring the controversial artists Serrano and Mapplethorpe, each at an institution that received some of its support from the NEA. Serrano's photograph of a crucifix in a Plexiglas container filled with the artist's urine became one of the most controversial works of art in America, and when Mapplethorpe's exhibition containing photographs Brenson describes as portraying "hardcore, multiracial sex acts in a sadomasochistic gay subculture" opened at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art in the early summer of 1989, conservatives and the Christian right mobilized nationwide opposition. The calls to eliminate the NEA became widespread, and in 1995 congress cut the NEA's budget by 40% and eliminated fellowships for individuals, except writers.

The NEA story isn't a new subject for Brenson. "I wrote a lot of things over the years about the NEA," he recalls. He covered the Mapplethorpe and Serrano controversies for the Times. That was "probably the time when they got into my blood as something I had to deal with."

The early 1990s in the art world, which saw events like the controversial 1993 Whitney Biennial and that museum's 1994 "Black Male" show, "were such important years," recalls Brenson. "Then this corporate thing came in 1995, and it was like a bomb that dropped" on the art world. He is referring to the increased dependence of museums and other cultural institutions on corporate and private support after the NEA budget cuts of 1995. "One of the things that troubles me about this country is that we go through these things like the NEA cuts and the cultural wars of the first part of the 1990s and they just end. We don't resolve them. There were so many issues in those years that we never figured out. I hope this book can maybe give people back part of that history."

Visionaries and Outcasts started as an essay commissioned by Jennifer Dowley, at the time the NEA's head of museums and visual arts. Dowley "thought it was really important to put a history of the visual arts program out there," Brenson recalls. "In fact, no one knew much about it or about what it actually did." He was to write an essay for a book that would list the 4,000 visual arts fellowship recipients and the panelists involved in the grant-making process. The essay

grew, and by the time he finished it, in early 1999, it was twice as long as the 15,000 words he was asked to write. Soon afterwards, Dowley left the NEA, as did agency head Jane Alexander. Alexander's replacement was William J. Ivey. Ivey asked Brenson to write a different essay explaining, for a lay public, the art that was funded and why this art was important. "I just said I wasn't going to do that." Brenson then showed the manuscript to Archibald L. Gillies, president of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, who asked if he could send it to André Schiffrin at the New Press. "It was all set up very quickly," says Brenson. His agent, Georges Borchardt, prepared the contract, "and then it was a question of going back to it and redoing it."
He rewrote the essay into a book through the early part of last year. Brenson had been a fellow at the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities in the fall of 1999, and that broadened his perspective. "It helped being around historians," he says.

His investigation hasn't diminished his enthusiasm for the NEA's now-defunct artists fellowship program. "It's amazing that it ever happened," he says. Could it be resurrected? "It's pretty hard to imagine now," he says, especially given the presumed priorities of the new administration in Washington. "The odds of this happening are very small. And, frankly, I think as a country we don't think we need artists now."

Brenson believes the popular idea of the visual arts and the visual artist has changed dramatically since the NEA was founded.

"We've lost our definition of the identity of the visual artist," he tells PW. "When the NEA started, there was an image of the visual artist that people could latch onto," he says. "It was an image that was not materialist, was basically suspicious of popular culture and removed from science." This was the era of the Cold War, when scientists were identified with atomic bombs and Armageddon. "There was really an alarm about American materialism." But things have changed. "There's no alarm anymore about money. Money is perceived now as an unqualified good. Science is technology, which is progress, which is convenience."

For Brenson, who has also written books on the sculptors David Smith and J l Shapiro, the ideal of the visual arts has been, to a large extent, supplanted by entertainment industry values. He recalls giving a talk a few years ago before a group of American foreign service officers charged with popularizing the country's culture abroad. Some of them told Brenson about program cuts. They were being informed by their superiors that American culture has Steven Spielberg, "and it d sn't need anything else."

The upshot of all this is a growing official perception, Brenson feels, that "popular culture is American culture. The entertainment industry has infiltrated everything, and artists have been part of this general kind of assimilation." It's this assimilation that has caused what he calls the identity crisis among visual artists. "Part of the fear that I have is that if we're so willing to integrate ourselves into the entertainment industry, then how do we show what we can do? Because they can do it, if not better, then more visibly. They've got more resources," asserts Brenson. And it is here that he sees the importance of the role of the critic. "It becomes incumbent on someone like me, who writes about art, to really fight for those distinctions, and to find the language in which to communicate why people should care about visual art, visual artists and what visual artists can bring to the country. There are really serious issues there."

Jacques is a poet and essayist. His work has appeared, most recently, in Cineaste and Black Issues Book Review.